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Review Q&A: A conversation with Rancho Santa Fe Fire District Chief Tony Michel

REPORTED BY JOE TASH

As chief of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District, Tony Michel oversees an agency that provides fire protection and emergency medical services for 28,000 people over a territory of 38 square miles.

The district is governed by an elected, five-person board of directors, and has a full-time, paid staff of 51 employees, including 39 firefighters. The district includes Rancho Santa Fe, Fairbanks Ranch, 4S Ranch, The Crosby, Cielo and other communities, and operates four fire stations.

The district moved its administrative headquarters in March from its old offices in the Rancho Santa Fe village to Cielo Village, 18027 Calle Ambiente. The district paid about $1.8 million for the 6,200-square-foot building, which includes the rights to 22 parking spaces for customers and staff.

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Michel, 51, was appointed fire chief in November, and has spent his entire 28-year fire service career with the Rancho Santa Fe district. We recently sat down for a Q&A with Michel to discuss the district’s finances, new headquarters and other issues. The responses have been edited for brevity.

Q. What are the issues facing the district regarding finances and the economy?

A. Just like any other agency or any other public facility, we’ve had a downturn in the economy for some years now, that’s taking effect on where we get our revenue, the majority of all our revenue is from property tax.

Q. Can you give me a quick sketch, how much is your budget, how much comes from property taxes and how much from other sources?

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A. Our budget is a little over $11 million. Property tax accounts for 79 percent of the fire district’s revenue. We have benefit fee that was imposed back in 1980, a special fee imposed on every parcel and that fee pays for extra stuff like paramedic services. So we deliver a higher level of service to the community, we have put things in place that cost a little bit more money. The benefit fee is an assessment to make up the difference between what the property tax does and what it costs to run the district. We also have miscellaneous revenue from leases, we have leases on some of our facilities with ambulance companies, we have leases to Rancho Santa Fe Association patrol, which is currently where we vacated and we have some leases with cellular companies, some of our towers.

Q. What financial challenges are you facing with the economy?

A. After 10 straight years of increase in property taxes, in the last three we have realized about a 6 percent drop in property tax revenue, along with a pretty good amount of refunds that have been taken back from the county and those refunds are a direct correlation to people reassessing their properties.

Q. So a 6 percent drop, what does that translate to, have you had to make cuts?

A. No we have not made cuts but what we have done, this all ties together about what we’re all talking about, the cooperative efforts have helped. The cooperative efforts… with the cities of Encinitas, Del Mar and Solana beach… have brought in some revenue of about $300,000 and we have not filled a couple of vacancies created when people have left. And there haven’t been raises for personnel in almost three years now.

Q. You mentioned that there are going to be some changes in the ambulance service?

A. Currently how the ambulance service works for the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District, the city of Encinitas, the city of Solana Beach, Del Mar, Harmony Grove and some of the city (of San Diego), it’s called County Service Area 17, it was set up to provide ambulance service for our communities. The ambulance service is a contract through the County of San Diego, authorized by the county Board of Supervisors. The paramedics on the ambulance work for San Diego Medical Services, which is a private company that provides transport service for CSA 17.

They’ve been running in deficit spending for the last three years and because of that, there’s now going to be a $400 transport fee, which will be new to anybody transported who lives within the district.

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If you’re a non-resident, if you’re staying here, driving through here, visiting here, and you incur the need of an ambulance, you’ll be charged in excess of $1,100 for their fees. And that fee has not changed, it’s always been the case. The only new fee will be the $400 fee that is going to be incurred by any transport by CSA 17 ambulance. That’s started I believe August 1. Where in the past, there’s never been a bill for the CSA 17 but because of deficit spending in the CSA 17 the county Board of Supervisors approved that $400 fee to balance our budget within three years.

Q. Walk us through what you have going and things you might be thinking about in the future, regarding cooperative efforts with other agencies?

A. The cooperative efforts have started a long time ago. Back in the early 2000s, the North County fire agencies put out to bid, to see what it would take, how can we do things to better help the customers and reduce the duplication of services? The study came back and gave a bunch of recommendations. They recommended that we should do some joint training, we should all try and start working together and that started a functional consolidation amongst a lot of the North County agencies. We started working off the same training manual, we started working off the same policies and procedures and emergency manual, we started setting up some things in place so each agency can respond into another agency if they’re closer. It’s called a boundary drop. Boundary drop is no matter what the call is, if you’re closer you’ll go. There’ve been a couple that didn’t involve themselves in that but as a whole, North County agencies do a boundary drop. The closest appropriate engine or chief or anybody will respond.

In 2007… Rancho Santa Fe ended up going into a contract with Del Mar and Solana Beach providing battalion chief coverage, emergency response coverage and management coverage… that’s a 24-hour, seven day a week, if they had a major incident, our battalion chief would go over there and manage their emergency and utilize that. That went real well. So in 2009 we expanded that to say hey, let’s look at other opportunities and the city of Encinitas joined in at that time…

Our training chief, Rancho Santa Fe training chief is doing training for all 11 fire stations with four different agencies. (Rancho Santa Fe, Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas.)

We have increased the level of service, yet decreased the cost to all agencies involved. Because of that we won a (San Diego) taxpayers association Golden Watchdog award. For realizing a total cost savings amongst all four agencies of I believe was in the million-dollar (range).

Q. Do you see a point at which those four agencies will simply merge?

A. That’s what we’re looking into right now. (At) our next governance meeting, people that sit on the governance committee are two people from the city of Del Mar, Encinitas, Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe (fire district), along with the city managers and the two fire chiefs. We are going to be talking about different models, and which model we are going to choose to move forward with.

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Ultimately, can that be the end result? Yes. But we’re not that far yet. We’re trying to take little steps to get a foundation down.

Just as we did with the North County JPA (joint powers authority) for the dispatch center, which took 25 years to where it’s at right now, we’ve been doing this since about 2009, so we’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, we’ve got a few more years to go before we work this out. It’s not a real quick process, in trying to get four different agencies doing the same thing. It has to make financial sense for everybody involved.

It’s up to the governance, the fire board directors and the three city councils. They will have to make the final decision.

Q. How long have you been in this new headquarters and how does it fit into your overall plans?

A. We moved in at the end of March.

We were challenged to have enough parking for the needs of the customers.

We looked into the possibility of doing a joint parking structure with the inn, the association, the school and ourselves, the costs were scary. For the same costs we were going to put into that parking structure, we bought this facility, (tenant-improved) and outfitted. So the money that we were going to spend on the parking structure, which was just going to be 25 spaces… we were able to buy this building and get 22 parking spaces committed as a part of it.

It made sound financial sense to the board and the management to go this route. Some of the benefits of having it here, we have room for the future, we have ample space for our customers to come in and park, we have a better setup, we had a squeezed fire prevention bureau over there. We have counter space, we have areas where we can open up plans and review plans with the customer. Each one of the prevention areas are built so they can just open up a set of plans, do their plan reviews right there, right at their work station instead of having to move somewhere else and everybody trying to fight for one plan area.

The other aspect is now that we vacated the El Fuego location where we were before, we were able to give the (Rancho Santa Fe) patrol somewhere they could be for however long they want. We signed an agreement with six five-year leases with them, so they can be there as long as they want to meet their needs… it’s a permanent home for them.

So, the outcome was really a win-win-win for everybody. I loved that location, I miss it a little bit, but this is more centrally located for the whole fire district. It makes it easier for other members of the fire district to get to and have ample parking.

Q. We understand the district’s long-time fire marshal, Cliff Hunter, is set to retire soon. Will you fill the position?

A. We were very fortunate to have a fire marshal who was not only just locally known, county known, but nationally known. A great individual with extensive knowledge and background and experience. The fire marshal is ultimately responsible for the duties of the fire prevention bureau, and is the liaison with homeowners associations and different community groups to make sure that ultimately we have a fire-safe community. He’s responsible for directing and implementing codes and enforcing the codes. We have many shelter-in-place communities here that were built and have to be maintained and it takes a full-time fire marshal to do that.

More or less the fire marshal is like the fire chief’s right hand when it comes to the fire prevention aspect of it. He’s making sure the community is going to be safe along with the fire chief.

We are going to move forward with an open recruitment, a statewide recruitment for his replacement. His retirement date is October 1st. We’re not going to fill his shoes, that would be very difficult after more than 40 years in the fire service, as a fire chief, a county fire marshal, and now the fire marshal of Rancho Santa Fe.

Q. What’s in store for the region this fire season?

A. I went to the operational readiness meeting out in East County to see what the fire season’s going to be, what they’re expecting, what the fire behaviorists and the meteorologists are saying, and they’re saying were going to have a hotter than normal winter. We’re not going to have as much rain up until about February, and so, we’re going to have those dry Santa Ana (winds) coming later, but they’re still going to be in the moderate range.

We have not had that many starts this year as we did last year, fire starts, grass fires and smaller fires… for a fire to get big it has to start small, we haven’t had that many this year as we’ve had in years past, but that does not say that the hazard’s gone.

I think more people are aware and they’re doing their due diligence to make sure that we’re being fire-safe, but the fire season is probably going to be a moderate fire season, in October, they’re still expecting Santa Anas, and we just have to make sure that were prepared.

Q. What are the most important things people can do to be ready for fire season?

A. Number one, defensible space. Make sure that you have defensible space around your structure. When you get that letter in the mail, hey make sure your area is clear, listen to that, get your defensible space because that’s going to protect your home and property from not only catching on fire, but if it does catch on fire, more ability for the firefighters to come save it. Number two is just be prepared. Be diligent, and know your escape routes, know which way if you have to evacuate, where you’re going to evacuate, and how to get out if you need to.


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